After a frustrating start to the season, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen used the much-needed bye week to get back to the basics.
“You just go back to fundamentals. We know what works. We’ve got to go back and execute,” Niumatalolo said Sept. 20. “Air Force got after us. Looking at Marshall, I feel like we executed. We just didn’t finish in the red zone, which we’re normally pretty good at.”
In analyzing his team’s 0-2 start to the year, Niumatalolo was able to find some positives from Navy’s 49-7, season-opening loss to Marshall. His team rushed for 337 yards that afternoon, more than it did in any game last season.
But there was little to build upon the following week when the Midshipmen were thwarted, 23-3, by service academy rival Air Force on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Navy gained a total of 68 yards that day, the fewest for the program since a 1966 loss to Notre Dame. Five of its six first downs came in the fourth quarter, as did all 32 passing yards.
The ghastly performance led athletic director Chet Gladchuk to take the unprecedented step to fire longtime offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper immediately after the game without involving the head coach in the decision, a break in the chain of command instilled in all who attend the Naval Academy.
Niumatalolo announced Sept. 13 that he had met with Gladchuk the previous day and Jasper had been reinstated in a reduced role as quarterbacks coach.
“That was a hard deal, probably one of the hardest deals I’ve had to deal with as a coach. Those kids love Coach Jasper. Those kids were crushed, but Coach just came in and kept working like nothing happened, kept pressing forward,” Niumatalolo said. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take a toll.”
Niumatalolo will assume the responsibility of calling plays the rest of the season, which he said he did in Navy’s first game against Marshall and each of the last two seasons.
The Midshipmen will begin their attempt to turn the season around Sept. 25 against the University of Houston in their first American Athletic Conference game and first road contest of the year. It starts a difficult stretch of the season that features two games against teams ranked in the top 12 nationally in Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
Niumatalolo said he was encouraged by his team’s response to the recent adversity. The season is far from over with 10, or “hopefully 11,” games remaining. He added he was encouraged by the work ethic and attitude of the players during the bye week.
“We have so much to play for,” he said. “It’s a long season. We’ve just got to keep going, keep grinding.”
Houston comes into the conference opener with a 2-1 record. The Cougars suffered their lone loss to Texas Tech Sept. 4 before beating Rice and Grambling State by lopsided scores each of the next two weeks.
Along with a struggling offensive line, underwhelming quarterback play has led to Navy’s offensive woes. Questions persist at the position, as the status of Tai Lavatai remains unclear. The sophomore started the season opener but left early in the second half with an injury and did not play against Air Force. Fellow sophomore Xavier Arline did not complete a single pass while starting in his place and failed to turn Navy’s triple-option offense into the successful rushing attack fans have become accustomed to watching.
“Tai had a good week of rehab. He’s going to practice [Sept. 20] and we’ll see how that goes,” Niumatalolo responded when asked about Lavatai’s potential return. “We’re encouraged by his progress.”
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